Herb of the Month: Dandelion

By Megan Jones.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”Ila Hatter, wildcrafter

Ah, Spring.  Birds begin to sing in anticipation of fruitful months, the daylight hours slowly lengthen and the green world awakens from its cold slumber.   For us, seeing the opening buds on a tree or the daffodils sprouting up from brown grass is a most welcome sign of warmer days to come.  However, there is one cheery plant some wish would not come at all.

Dandelion.  Just the mention of the word sends some homeowners into a frantic race to cut its life short before it spreads any further.  This tenacious plant is sometimes considered a sore sight for the manicured lawn and has somehow become the ultimate symbol of neglect.   Millions of dollars each year are spent on the eradication of this weed in hopes that it will go away forever.  Yet, as we all know, it almost always comes back.

So what is the best way to rid your yard of these pests?  The answer is simple: eat them.  But before you do that, get to know the dandelion first.

HISTORY & FOLKLORE

Dandelion, or Taraxacum officinale, has been used extensively throughout history as both food and medicine.    Its uses were mentioned in 7th century Chinese writings as well as in the famed Gerard’s Herbal, first published in Europe in 1597.   The plant has a thick taproot which grows deep down into the layers of earth, enabling it to feed from the rich nutrients of the soil depths no matter what season or temperature.  The leaves are long, green and jagged, mimicking a row of what looks like teeth.  In fact, the word “dandelion” is a form of the French name Dent de Lion, or “teeth of the lion”.

The first European settlers purposely introduced dandelions to the New World because of its many healing properties.   In early colonies, many settlers lived off of salted meats and starches in the winter.  When spring finally arrived, it was imperative to relieve their excess fluid retention due to malnutrition, for which dandelion was ideal.  It is an effective diuretic, helping to stimulate the elimination of excess fluids and toxins through urination.  The greens were a welcome addition to the early spring menu and were packed with essential vitamins and minerals needed to gain health and strength back for the upcoming farming season.

Native Americans adopted these uses of dandelion and more from the settlers.  Also known as “yellow flower” or hu tsi la ha to the Cherokee, the dandelion flowers were used for dye in basket making.   The leaves were often eaten in meals and the entire plant was used to calm nerves, strengthen the heart and to help ease rheumatism.   It was also used as a tonic to “make women stronger” after childbirth.

Dandelions have played a crucial role for humans in history in more ways than imaginable.  The flowers are vital for bees and play an important role within the honey-producing world of plants.  In the early spring, they are plentiful in both nectar and pollen and serve as a late-summer food source.  Because of this important role, the settlers in the Midwest introduced dandelion to provide food for bees.

The roasted ground roots of the dandelion are a good substitute for coffee.  For centuries both fine wine and beer have been made from the flowers.

The flowers, leaves and roots of the dandelion can all be used in the treatment of ailments including anemia, sluggish liver, skin issues such as acne and eczema, jaundice, rheumatism, poor digestion, kidney ailments, constipation, spleen or bowel inflammation and heartburn.   Dandelion stimulates the liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and gallbladder, increasing the flow of bile.  In addition, the plant’s natural nutritive salts are useful as a blood and tissue cleanser.   An old gypsy remedy uses the milky juice or sap to take off warts.

Dandelion is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and potassium.  In fact, the potassium absorbed by the body is not leached out through the urine like other sources; it replaces what the body loses.  People who suffer from leg cramps due to lack of potassium will often find dandelion an effective remedy.

Up until recently, using dandelion as a bitter tonic was commonplace.  Due to its highly bitter taste, it was used to stimulate the digestion.  By taking bitters prior to eating, the digestive system begins working before food enters the mouth.  Therefore, even hard to digest foods are easier to assimilate.  It is possible that the decrease in use of bitters in today’s American diet has lead to the increase of heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux.

MEDICINAL USES

The flowers, leaves and roots of the dandelion have traditionally been used throughout history and cultures to treat a variety of ailments.  Uses of dandelion in past and present include anemia, sluggish liver, skin issues such as acne and eczema, jaundice, rheumatism, poor digestion, kidney ailments, constipation, spleen or bowel inflammation and heartburn.  It stimulates the liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, gallbladder, increasing the flow of bile.  In addition, dandelion’s natural nutritive salts are useful as a blood and tissue cleanser.   An old gypsy remedy includes using the milky juice or sap to take off warts.

Dandelion is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and potassium.  In fact, the potassium absorbed from the plant is not leached out through the urine like other sources; it replaces what the body loses.  People who suffer from leg cramps due to lack of potassium will often find dandelion an effective remedy.

Up until recently, using dandelion as a bitter tonic was commonplace.  Due to its highly bitter taste, it was used to stimulate the digestion.  Stimulating the digestion meant that your digestive system began working before food was put into the mouth and therefore even hard to digest foods were a little easier to assimilate.  With the decrease in use of bitters in the everyday lives of Americans, heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux have increased tremendously.


CULINARY USES

Dandelion is an ideal source of essential nutrients from food.  The leaves can be used in place of any recipe calling for spinach, lettuce or any other leafy green.   To help you enjoy the benefits and versatility of dandelion, here is a favorite recipe for you to try and enjoy!

Dandelion Quiche

Ingredients

1 9” unbaked pastry shell

1 tbsp flour

1 ¾ cups milk

3 eggs

2 cups shredded natural Swiss cheese and/or Romano cheese (I use ½ and ½)

4 cups fresh dandelion greens, chopped

2 cloves minced garlic

½ lb sliced mushrooms

½ tsp salt

Olive oil

1 tbsp fresh chopped herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano or any other desired

1 small onion, chopped (optional)

Pinch of cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

Partially bake the pastry shell in a 450 degree oven for 5-7 minutes or just until lightly browned.  Remove from oven; reduce heat to 325 degrees.  Set the shell aside.

Add chopped dandelion greens, minced garlic, sliced mushrooms, onions and herbs to olive oil or butter in skillet until onions are translucent, greens are wilted and mushrooms release their juice.   Stir in the flour.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the eggs and milk, and add the cooked vegetables.  Sprinkle 1 ½ cups cheese in the partially-baked pie crust and pour the egg and vegetable mixture over it.  Sprinkle remaining half cup over quiche about 15 – 20 minutes before quiche is done.

Bake in a 325 degree oven for 40 – 45 minutes or until a knife blade inserted just off center comes out clean.  Let stand 10 minutes and serve.  Makes 6 servings.

Even today, dandelion holds an important place in our culture.  Not only are dandelions abundant, but they are also a source of free food and medicine.  Though it is highly recommended that you take advantage of this widespread weed, please be sure that the plants you harvest are not sprayed with any chemicals.

Written by Megan Jones for Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. 2011.